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What is the meaning of PEZ?

--NgCarolyn, via AOL

Glad you put it that way, Carolyn. Your unimaginative type of person might have asked, "What do the letters PEZ stand for?" The answer to which is, they're an abbreviation of the German Pfefferminz, peppermint. Yawn. But the meaning of PEZ--whoa! Give me a minute and I'll drag in Plato and the influence of Immanuel Kant.

The PEZ story is one of triumph over unexpected setbacks. It all started in the 19th century, when Eduard Haas, an Austrian doctor, invented a baking powder to lighten up the leaden baked goods of the day. But he was unable to capitalize on this discovery, writes PEZ historian David Welch, because, "as a result of medical experiments upon himself with the then up-and-coming injections," he died. Yow. Unexpected setback number one.

Son Eduard II had to drop out of med school for financial reasons--setback number two--and went into the wholesale grocery business instead. Wisely avoiding medical experiments, he pioneered in the less risky arena of preweighing and packaging goods. His business thrived.

By and by Eduard III arrived. As a teenager in the World War I era he mixed up baking powder according to grandpa's recipe and sold it in dad's shop. Continuing the family tradition of innovation, he advertised the stuff in the newspaper, an uncommon practice at the time. Sales took off.

You're wondering when I'm going to get to PEZ. Patience. Ed III liked peppermints. In the 1920s he and a chemist came up with a cold-pressing process to permit peppermints to be made inexpensively. Another innovation--this guy was such a genius--was to make the candies rectangular so they could be more readily machine wrapped. PEZ was born. Marketed as an alternative to smoking, or at least a good way to disguise tobacco breath, the candies were a hit.

At first PEZ was sold in pocket-size tins. But in the late 1940s the Haas company introduced the "PEZ box," a little plastic gadget that dispensed candies one at a time. The dispensers were unadorned, looking something like disposable lighters.

In the early 1950s Haas decided it was time to introduce North America to PEZ. Here we get to setback number three. In Europe PEZ had been marketed as a sophisticated adult treat. Unfortunately the New World, and in particular the United States, suffered from an acute shortage of sophisticated adults. The product went nowhere. Casting about for a new strategy, the head of PEZ's U.S. operations, Curtis Allina, proposed marketing PEZ to kids, with new flavors and, more important for future collectibles connoisseurs, new kid-oriented designs for PEZ dispensers. Old man Haas reluctantly agreed. The first new dispensers, introduced in 1955, were the Santa Claus and Space Trooper models. Sales were huge. Haas was mortified, but since he was making millions, I guess he dealt with it.

Santa and the Trooper, as well as the PEZ Space Gun, introduced the following year, were "full-bodied" designs, with the dispenser fully enclosed by the toy. (The Space Gun ejected PEZ candies when you pulled the trigger.) But full-bodied designs were a pain to manufacture, and subsequent dispensers in the North American market featured decorative heads only.

Hundreds of designs--no one is quite sure how many--have been issued over the years, including Mickey Mouse, Bullwinkle, and Popeye. (My personal fave, issued during the psychedelic 60s, was a hand holding an eyeball. I always bring it with me to showings of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) Unauthorized knockoffs have included Hitler, Pee-wee Herman, and members of the band Kiss. Also--one blushes for Papa Haas--a penis.

It doesn't always work, and after emptying you have to wait six hours to reload.

One last setback. Peppermints had always been nearest to Ed III's heart. Even after new flavors were introduced in the mid-50s, peppermint was still part of the mix, along with lemon, orange, anise, eucalyptus, lime, and chlorophyll. (Yeah, I'd forgotten about chlorophyll too. Kind of a minty flavor.) But despite being made with the world's finest peppermint oil, the peppermint flavor--the source of the PEZ name, for God's sake--stank up the marketplace and was soon withdrawn. PEZ Candy, which is now independent of the Austrian company and sells two billion PEZ candies annually in the U.S. alone, recently reintroduced peppermint in hopes that the public had grown sophisticated enough to appreciate it. (Seriously. It's an adult PEZ. PEZ Candy president Scott McWhinnie tells me they even make non-character-headed dispensers for it.) In the land of Beavis and Butt-head, appealing to mature tastes is always a dangerous proposition. But you gotta dream.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.

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